Forty-Two

 
 
 
 
 
Baseball, like life generally, has plenty of “great” men whose glory is a hollow sham, and a few truly great souls who work straight through all the hypocrisy and betrayal to reach their goal.

My Dear One-and-Only Son,

I know you won’t be reading this until about a half a year after I’ve posted it.  I’m not even going to let you learn of its existence until you’re settled into your first semester of college and playing fall baseball on your scholarship.  I respect your desire to contribute as fully as possible at this instant (the instant of my writing) to your high school team’s drive for the state championship during your senior year.  You don’t want the distraction of hearing derogatory comments about your coach—of suffering through my indignant accusations that this man constantly slights you.  Even if true, these conjectures would only drain the energy that you’re trying to channel productively: especially if true, they would do so.

I had intended to write this tribute to you for Jackie Robinson Day, April 15… but the Boston Marathon bombings came between me and that intent.  Though I’m a few weeks behind, however, the comments that follow will always be relevant—to baseball and to life.

I recall reading somewhere that Bill White, the All Star Cardinal first-baseman of the sixties, refused to consider the possibility that some of the roadblocks thrown up before him were the consequence of racism.  (I think these were probably Bill’s own comments in Jackie’s anthology, Baseball Has Done It.)  White was not necessarily denying that conspiracies of such origin existed: he was simply determined not to let problems beyond his control spoil his concentration.  Later on he would become the first black commissioner of the National League—for a very short span, until he resigned upon realizing that he was a mere figurehead.  The ex-player could no longer ignore all the lies that the player had long lived among indifferently.  I twice attempted to draw from Bill White a reaction to my assessment of his experience.  He ignored my first letter, but took the trouble to send the second back with the words heavily and angrily impressed over his address, “Letter refused.”

Willie Mays would not so much as contribute a chapter to Jackie’s book, for the same reason that he wouldn’t participate in freedom marches during the mid-sixties.  He wasn’t opposed to speaking out politically, but neither did he feel that his personal energy would be best channeled in that direction.  Baseball has quite enough ways to undermine your confidence, the most obvious nurtured by ill-wishers on the opposing team and by the ever-fickle baseball gods.  Once you admit to yourself that, besides these formidable powers, you must constantly watch your back because of “friendly fire” that’s a little too fierce to be accidental, you’re likely to grow paranoid.  Willie chose to preserve his laser-sharp focus rather than start glancing over his shoulder.

As did you in the spring of  ’13.  I respect that: it was very professional of you.  But maybe you can now understand, in turn, that I as a father found it almost impossible to look on quietly as a whited-sepulcher hypocrite of a coach worked to subvert your confidence so as to justify removing you from the line-up.

This had gone on all four years of your high-school career.  Its inception, perhaps, was the man’s private war with one of the dads who happened to be my friend.  Though I attempted to smooth over any misunderstanding with Coach C, he always awkwardly avoided a direct discussion.  At first I took this as a sign of embarrassment on his part for ever having wronged me in such a childish manner.  Only later did I begin to wonder if he were nursing his “grievance” quietly the better to spring his patient revenge.

Yet the facts speak for themselves, or certainly leave a broad trail of evidence.  You hit .320 as a freshman and won All Conference Honorable Mention… so Coach C insisted next year that you give up switch-hitting and bat only left.  You continued to bat well as a sophomore, though left-handed pitching now perplexed you… so Coach C next insisted that his new assistant completely dismantle and rebuild your swing.  You struggled miserably at the plate in your junior year, though the assistant coach—a good kid caught in the middle of something he didn’t understand—loyally defended your extraordinary effort.  A few months later, as you played summer ball before your senior year, you found a way to modify your hitting stroke and led your team in batting average; so the following spring—this present season—Coach C had his assistant demand that you “hit for more power”.  This so confused you that you indeed couldn’t hit well enough to stay in the starting line-up, and Coach C was at last able to justify moving you to the bench.  He pulled you even though you had just reverted to your former stroke and stung the ball repeatedly in your last game as a starter and in subsequent practices.  His mind, clearly, was already made up.

And then there was your pitching.  Already as a freshman, you were having a lot of success relieving with the submarine delivery I had taught you… so Coach C insisted that you give up that motion and throw sidearm.  Was he frustrated, I wonder, when your sidearm-throwing also proved to mystify opposing hitters?  We demonstrated to him at about that time that you could also throw left-handed, in case he thought that incredible skill worth further grooming… but he was unimpressed, which was perhaps an honest response to a dream that would have needed too much work to come true.  (Other coaches have given me this same response.)  By your senior year, at any rate, you had resumed pitching as a submariner.  I had made you do so, even though you whined and nagged that Coach C wasn’t interested in that delivery.  The video we made of your bullpen using your unique motion resulted in drawing the interest of the college that eventually gave you a scholarship.  Your pitches moved so evasively, in fact, that Coach C couldn’t resist letting you throw from down under during your final season, when your strikeouts-to-walks ratio was about seven-to-one.  That was one skill which he couldn’t allow to stay on the bench.  As near as I could tell, he went about taking personal credit for its success.

He was less charitable about your play at infield defensive positions.  I watched you make plays at third base during your sophomore year that drew oohs and aahs from the crowd, yet you never started at that position.  In your junior year, Coach C abruptly decided to stick you over at second with almost no pre-season rehearsal, and you started every district game there with only one error.  Yet this year it was back to third—and back to being yelled at if you didn’t fling yourself into the dirt after a ball that you had no chance to reach.  No one else could play third or second with as few errors as you or with as many dazzling pick-ups… yet you were always just barely good enough, and finally not good enough.  How you were able to retain any self-confidence through these years of intemperate berating is beyond me: it’s quite a testament to your character.

At the same time, your friend at shortstop racked up errors at four and five times your rate, and your various substitutes at third performed so miserably that teammates openly wondered why you were sitting on the bench.  Your mother thought she had the answer: the shortstop’s father was a generous donor to the school, and the third-baseman’s father was Coach C’s immediate boss.

I also periodically saw you pulled from games for the most absurd “infractions”: once you didn’t run out a FOUL pop-up, and once you threw your glove in the dugout after a frustrating inning.  I never saw or heard of any other player being so handled.  Umpires occasionally threw one of our kids out for profanity, but those kids were never you.

Why the special treatment?  Was your mom right—was Coach C courting the rich and powerful, leaving you the expendable piece in the puzzle?  Or was this all payback to me for an imagined slight that would have occurred years earlier?  Or was Coach C piqued that you had received a baseball scholarship (despite his urging us both not to hope for any such thing) while his hand-picked golden boy received none?

We’ll never know for sure.  And the young black males who struggled to stay in the big leagues during the fifties and sixties never knew for sure if they were victims of a talent deficit or… or of their skin color.  For though race wasn’t the issue in your case, the resemblances to the up-and-down careers of players like Curt Roberts, Ted Savage, and George Altman are remarkable.  Roberts, a great-field-no-hit second-baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 1954 season, had his plug pulled the following spring.  Manager Danny Murtaugh had figured out that Curt was near-sighted and sent him to have his eyes checked.  Equipped now with spectacles, the young man tore up league pitching for a couple of weeks in 1955… but the General Manager had already decided that the team had enough black boys and wouldn’t listen to reason.  This man was the sainted Branch Rickey—a master of spin and marketing but (between you, me, and God) no particular crusader for civil rights.

Savage had the distinction of being perhaps the first black bench-warmer.  Never before had players of his complexion been allowed to pinch-hit and step in at key defensive positions as needed: either they started or they stayed in the minors.  Ted spent half a dozen years in the big leagues collecting about a full season’s worth of at-bats.  He could steal bases, hit with power, patrol the outfield like a hawk… a useful actor in bit-parts.  But that ability to cling to the bench may have been most impressive of all.  Black second-baseman Jake Wood, by way of comparison, had led the league in triples with the Tigers in 1961—and had disappeared from the roster by 1962.

George Altman was the member of this group that I came to know best.  He actually answered my curious letters as I was working on a book.  To see George’s 1961 and ’62 baseball cards while he was with the Cubs, you would have thought him headed for the same glories as teammate Ernie Banks.  He was a versatile slugger who excelled in all statistical categories… so the Cubs, using that fatal judgment that has made them famous, traded him.  With the Cardinals, Altman got the word from on high that he was supposed to change his approach, leaning back and elevating everything down the right-field line.  The Olympian god who authored this message?  Branch Rickey, now in his last year of life and of pulling the puppets’ strings from the front office.  Not only did George fail to find success with his altered swing: he injured himself in the process.  The Cardinals wrote him off and traded him to the lowly Mets, where Casey Stengel proceeded to play him when he was hurt and sit him down when he was well.  Few players could ever figure out if Casey had it in for them or just didn’t know his cloaca from a hole in the ground.  He was an equal-opportunity mishandler of talent.  His well-publicized racial comments about Elston Howard’s base-running were more tasteless than bigoted; but worst of all, perhaps, they reflected a grossly off-target assessment.  In George’s case, the old man saw laziness where there was crippling pain and accidental good luck where there was hard-won success.

What I love about the single message unwittingly repeated over and over by these men is the triumph of goodness within it.  Ignore the bigotry, they said: you can’t frown it or shame it to silence, but you can make it dry up at the source if you plow right through it and continue to out-perform all the competition.  In an almost mystical way, the bigots are your friends.  They drive you to heights that you might never have reached on your own.  When they sneer that you’re no good, be so good that the lie within the sneer weighs it down too heavily to take flight from any rattling tongue.  Let your deeds be your answer.  Strike the idiots dumb with your brilliance.

The thing that worries me the most about you and your peers is that you all seem to have embraced the “swag”—the taunting, insult-trading childishness—of a later generation of black athletes rather than Jackie’s on-the-field daring and defying.  For God’s sake—for the sake of your God-given talent—don’t descend to the adolescent rodomontades of our contemporary all-mouth, no-brain males.  Be a man, a real man.  Aim your defiance at the two-faced adults who maliciously tried to ground your flight, not at the guys wearing the opposition’s uniform; and write that defiance in the kind of accomplishments they said you were incapable of performing—don’t sing it out in whiney catcalls.  I want to hear Judas grinding his teeth off in the distance when I read about your exploits in your college newspaper.

Jackie Robinson’s victory wasn’t about getting dark skin into a big-league uniform: it was about making skin color irrelevant in the golden glow of superior performance.  A fatuous legend has it that Branch Rickey selected Jackie over more talented ballplayers because Jackie had the poise and vision of a college-educated mind; but I half-suppose that, in his slick Rickeyish fashion, the Boss didn’t want Jackie to succeed too well.  He wanted a way to bail out of the experiment if it didn’t bring the gate receipts that he had anticipated—if it produced riots, for instance, that frightened people away from the turnstiles.  He wanted to be able to turn to the black community and say, “I tried… but your man wasn’t quite good enough.  I’ll try again later.  In the meantime, keep supporting my team.”  Jackie wasn’t even trained in the minors to play the position that he originally filled on the Dodger infield.  You should know how that feels.

But Jackie surprised Rickey along with everyone else.  Jackie shut them all up, and then he wrung cheers from their throats.  A young man could have a far worse hero.

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